Sesquicentennial Observance: The soldiers’ experience was more than combat

Yes, the experience of the Civil War soldier was much more than days of battle.  We can all agree with that, right?  There were days spent marching.  Lots of camps.  Days of drilling.  Or days spent doing little else but just being in uniform and performing military responsibilities associated with being a soldier.

But our interpretation of the soldier’s experience is heavily weighted to the battles. Those days are the “main events” which receive most of the attention.  After all, it was on those handful of days on which the war turned, right?  Well… perhaps those are the places in time where we can best demonstrate where the war turned.  There were other, more subtle, points where the war turned.  But the nature of those activities are somewhat complicated to get across in a fifteen minute tour stop… or even a 1000 word blog post.  How can one explain that THIS place…

Winter Encampment 070

… was one where the soldiers in the Army of the Potomac rested, refitted, and reorganized in a manner which propelled them to victory over 1864-5?  I don’t know, it took me the better part of four months blogging to discuss that aspect of the war.  And in case you are wondering, that’s the site of the Alexander house outside Culpeper, and where Colonel Charles Wainwright composed most of his diary entries during the winter of 1864.  (And Culpeper in particular offers a wealth of opportunities to offer “now” and “then” photography.  Because of the Winter Encampment of 1864, Culpeper became one of the most photographed localities of the war.)

Beyond just saying “this was a turning point” of sorts, is it not important to relate that the life of a soldier was not simply a series of engagements in mortal combat, fighting to the death on the battlefield?  Indeed.  And study of the “stuff outside of the battles” makes the whole somewhat richer and relative to us today.  The soldiers were not merely one-dimensional beings which existed during battle.  There were more facets to their experiences, some of which tied into the important themes of the war.

That said, I think it a positive that during the sesquicentennial we saw a lot of activities associated with these “off the battlefield” soldier activities.  Specific to the location pictured above, the Friends of Cedar Mountain and other organizations in Culpeper hosted a Winter Encampment Seminar during the winter of 2014, at the Germanna Community College campus just a few hundred yards removed from Wainwright’s quarters.  And later Friends of the Wilderness Battlefield hosted a tour of sites related to the 1864 Winter Encampment.   And those sesquicentennial events are just two handy references I can make (tied to the place pictured above).  Across the country, similar events, some hosted by the National Park Service or state organizations, but more so by local, grass-roots groups, showcased the “other than battle” experiences of the soldiers.

I think we should point out that emphasis as a “success” for the sesquicentennial.

On the other hand, we might also point out, for the sake of those bicentennialists to follow, many missed opportunities.  For all of the focus in late June and early July upon Adams County, Pennsylvania, the public-facing programming left out exactly how those armies got there.  Almost as if the soldiers were suspended in time at Chancellorsville, then magically re-appeared, somewhat worse for the wear, at Gettysburg.  That’s just one handy example.  I’m sure we could demonstrate a few more worth noting.  The point to push home here is, again, that the soldiers were not one-dimensional, and their experience was more than combat actions.

This is somewhat odd, I think, given the current trends with a lot of noise about “new military history.”  Shouldn’t historians be seeking out those interpretive opportunities to discuss the life of soldiers beyond the battlefields?   But we often see tours, especially those focused more on the “education” function over the general “entertainment” functions, that simply hit a set of battlefield sites….

And I’m picking out Kevin Levin’s recent tour, with a group of students tracing the story of the 20th Massachusetts from the fall of 1862 through summer 1863, out of convenience here.  I know Kevin’s not a “bugles and bayonets” type, and is genuinely interested in MORE than what regiment was on the right of the line at a particular phase of the battle.  So, I also am very sure that Kevin related more than just the raw details of the battles during that tour.  However, outside of the list of sites noted on his blog post, I don’t know what other stops were made on the way.  So  I stand to be corrected, if need be.

There was certainly ample material for a stop discussing the non-combat experience of the 20th Massachusetts.  The regimental history includes a full chapter on events during the winter of 1863 (though I’m not sure how accessible the Second Corps’ campsites are today, compared to those of the Eleventh and other corps).  There are some observations recorded by the 20th Massachusetts as they marched through Loudoun, so perhaps Gum Springs would offer a location to reflect upon those words. Or perhaps the reflection of soldiers at Edwards Ferry as they crossed the Potomac downstream of Balls Bluff, their first battle of the war.

Would such stops have been appropriate? Well, that’s one best left to the tour leader and determined by what stops fit within focus.  Sometimes logistics is the ultimate governing factor on stop selection.  But I would offer there are ample opportunity stops during our “on the field” tours to flesh out the soldiers with more than the “battle” experiences.  Yes, the monuments are great places to stop… but it is important to consider what happened between those monuments along the way.

However, that said, I think the activities witnessed during the sesquicentennial went a long way to bring attention to the non-combat experiences of the soldiers.  We can point to a rounded interpretation of the soldier experience as a success for the sesquicentennial… and one we can hand over to the bicentennialists to improve upon.

Sherman’s March, May 19, 1865: “And thus was completed the great circuit …”

Recording the march of 1st Division, Twentieth Corps for May 19, 1865, Major-General Alpheus Williams wrote:

May 19, after a march of fourteen miles, the division pitched tents upon the high ground above Holmes’ Creek, near Cloud’s Mills, within two miles of Alexandria.

VAMarch_May19

Today this area is part of a stand of townhouses named “Cameron Station” and Brenman’s Park.  (And as I write this, realization sets in that, while I’ve taken time to locate dozens of camp sites through Georgia and the Carolinas, I have not set down with wartime maps and sorted out where the rest of Sherman’s troops camped around Alexandria.  Someone has probably already documented those details.  If not, I shall in time!)

When he submitted his official report of the march up from North Carolina on May 27, Williams offered a summary of the movements of the 1st Division through the last half of the war.  Recall that Williams and the division had been part of Twelfth Corps, Army of the Potomac, in 1863.  The Twelfth, along with the Eleventh, rushed to Chattanooga in the fall of 1863.  They’d been consolidated into the Twentieth Corps as part of the reorganizations during the winter of 1864.  They fought as such during the Atlanta Campaign.  And they were among the four corps chosen to march on the Savannah Campaign, with Williams temporarily commanding the corps.  So Williams had a lot of ground to cover… in more ways than one.  I submit his summary as a good closing for my coverage of the Great March:

And thus was completed the great circuit made by this division within the last twenty months. From the banks of the Rapidan it was transferred, in September, 1863, to the Army of the Cumberland, through the States of Virginia, Maryland, Ohio, Indiana, Kentucky, and Tennessee. Leaving Tennessee in May, 1864, it has marched in succession through Northern Alabama, through Georgia from its north line near Chattanooga to Savannah, including the State capital, through the center of South Carolina, circuitously from the rice-fields opposite Savannah to its northeastern angle near Cheraw, through the center and capital of North Carolina, through Southern Virginia and its conquered capital back to the precise spot it left a little over a year and a half ago. Such a happy return to familiar scenes after marches, labors, exposures, and events of such extent and magnitude might well occasion and excuse a manifestation of unusual enthusiasm and exultation among all ranks.

A lot had transpired in those twenty months.  A lot of marching.  A lot of difficult crossings.  A lot of fighting.  A lot of campfires.  And a fair number of nights in cold camps.  Two of the hardest years of the war.  And, as Williams alluded to, the men had returned to the point at which the war had started for many of them – Washington, D.C.

The troops would rest and refit for a few days after May 19.  Their last “march” would take them through Washington, D.C. on May 24 to camps north of the city.  This march was met with much more celebration than others on the “great circuit.”

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 47, Part I, Serial 98, pages 605-6.)

General Orders No. 46: Schofield’s rules for the government of freedmen

As we stop thinking about sesquicentennials of the Civil War and begin inquiring, quite naturally, about the Reconstruction period that followed, one of the threads which I hope to see more attention focused is the role the military played at that time.  As I’ve mentioned before, I think there is a significant (and overlooked) “military history” component to Reconstruction.  And I mean that from the perspective of traditional military history – how military forces operated.  No matter how triumphant the Federal armies were in 1865, the political goals set forth by those in Washington (be that Lincoln or Johnson) could only be achieved within the reach of the military forces in the south.  To implement anything – to include the dismantling of slavery – the military commanders had to operate on the ground.

Following the Confederate surrender, Major-General John Schofield held command of the Department of North Carolina and managed the early stages of Reconstruction there.  He issued, as generals are supposed to do, a series of General Orders outlining policies for his subordinates.   And, let us stress again these were subordinates who were implementing the nuts and bolts of reconstruction at its earliest stages.  Issued on May 15, 1865, General Orders No. 46 set forward the rules for dealing with the freedmen:

The following rules are published for the government of freedmen in North Carolina until the restoration of civil government in the State:

I. The common laws governing the domestic relations, such as those giving parents authority and control over their children and guardians control over their wards, are in force. The parents’ or guardians’ authority and obligations take the place of those of the former master.

II. The former masters are constituted the guardians of minors and of the aged and infirm in the absence of parents or other near relatives capable of supporting them.

III. Young men and women, under twenty-one years of age, remain under the control of their parents or guardians until they become of age, thus aiding to support their parents and younger brothers and sisters.

IV. The former masters of freedmen may not turn away the young or the infirm, nor refuse to give them food and shelter, nor may the able-bodied men or women go away from their homes, or live in idleness, and leave their parents, children, or young brothers and sisters to be supported by others.

V. Persons of age who are free from any of the obligations referred to above are at liberty to find new homes wherever they can obtain proper employment; but they will not be supported by the Government, nor by their former masters, unless they work.

VI. It will be left to the employer and servant to agree upon the wages to be paid; but freedmen are advised that for the present season they ought to expect only moderate wages, and where their employers cannot pay them money, they ought to be contented with a fair share in the crops to be raised. They have gained their personal freedom. By industry and good conduct they may rise to independence and even wealth.

VII. All officers, soldiers, and citizens are requested to give publicity to these rules, and to instruct the freed people as to their new rights and obligations.

VIII. All officers of the army, and of the county police companies, are authorized and required to correct any violation of the above rules within their jurisdiction.

IX. Each district commander will appoint a superintendent of freed-men–a commissioned officer–with such number of assistants–officers and non-commissioned officers–as may be necessary, whose duty it will be to take charge of all the freed people in his district, who are without homes or proper employment. The superintendents will send back to their homes all who have left them in violation of the above rules, and will endeavor to find homes and suitable employment for all others. They will provide suitable camps or quarters for such as cannot be otherwise provided for, and attend to their discipline, police, subsistence, &c.

X. The superintendents will hear all complaints of guardians or wards, and report the facts to their district commanders, who are authorized to dissolve the existing relations of guardian and ward in any case which may seem to require it, and to direct the superintend-eat to otherwise provide for the wards, in accordance with the above rules.

Some of these rules were somewhat “evident” policies to implement.  Yes, 21-year-olds were still considered wards of their parents.  But beyond those we see rules which to a large degree allow the land owners, mostly former slave owners, to retain control of resources.  And that left most of the freedmen in a position to depend upon the land owners with regard to livelihood.

The basis for these rules, and others issued by Schofield during this period, was the opinion of where reconstruction should start.  At the time, Schofield applied to Lieutenant-General Ulysses S. Grant in that regard, suggesting to use the pre-war state governments as a starting point, adjusted for the changes wrought by the war.  Writing in his later years, Schofield explained his view:

The fundamental principles of my suggestion were:

First. The Constitution and laws as they were before secession, modified to embrace the legitimate results of the war—namely, national integrity and universal freedom.

Second. Intelligent suffrage, to be regulated by the States themselves; and

Third. Military governments, in the absence of popular civil governments, as being the only lawful substitute, under our system, for a government by the people during their temporary inability, from whatever cause, to govern themselves.

We might stand on firm ground to criticize Schofield’s G.O. No. 46 for allowing the establishment of a tenant system which perpetuated some of the ills of slavery. But on the other hand, we also must consider Schofield confronted with a situation and responded within the context of his military profession.  His goal was to restore order, first and foremost, so as to setup the next evolution… however authorities in Washington might decide.  Above all, the military mind will pursue the shortest path from chaos to order.  But more so, we see here the American military professional falling back to his fealty to the Constitution.

Of note, within a week, Schofield’s orders were adopted as policy for the Department of the South.  So these rules were applied to many parts across the south.

Schofield would lament, in those later years, that his proposed course was not taken:

But these constitutional methods were rejected. First came the unauthorized system of ‘provisional’ governors, civilians without any shadow of lawful authority for their appointments, and their abortive attempts at ‘reconstruction.’

Next the Fourteenth Amendment, disfranchising nearly all the trusted leaders of the Southern people, and then the ‘iron-clad oath,’ universal enfranchisement of the ignorant blacks, and ‘carpet-bag’ governments, with all their offensive consequences. If wise statesmanship instead of party passion had ruled the hour, how easily could those twelve years of misrule in the South, and consequent disappointment and shame among its authors in the North, have been avoided!

Again, we can stand on firm ground and criticize what Schofield proposed.  But we must also consider what his preferred end-state was here.  We would slip off that firm ground to say Schofield opposed enfranchisement of freedmen.  The truth lay somewhere between.  Was there a better alternative for Schofield to pursue? Indeed.  But if we chose to run with such counter-factuals, then we must offer explanations to deal with the realities Schofield confronted at that time.  Indeed, let me circle back to the “traditional military history” aspect here – did Schofield have the resources to implement a complete reorganization of society in North Carolina, as things stood in May 1865?

History often plays out as the application of lofty ideas by way of direct implementation.  Thus history becomes a study of dirty, and complex, little details. None no more than Reconstruction.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 47, Part III, Serial 100, page 503; John M. Schofield, Forty-six Years in the Army, New York: The Century Company, 1897, page 376.)